Creating a Better Checklist

Creating a Better Checklist by Peter Cassidy
AirPlay First Quarter 2012

I’m not sure why, but I always had a thing about checklists. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I don’t have the greatest memory and only fly about a hundred hours a year. This leaves plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong because I failed to check something. In my years of flying I’ve had plenty of those experiences so I make a concerted effort to do better.

In February 2007 we had a program at EAA Chapter 162 on improving pilot proficiency. [view related article]

We discussed the practice of debriefing each flight making note of anything that did not go as planned. It’s a simple process that, for myself at least, has yielded some useful insight. I’ve discovered that the overwhelming majority of my pilot errors come from not using the checklist. There’s obviously room for improvement in this area.

I’ve learned over the years that checklists are a very personal thing. Ideally they should be designed for the individual. Standardized checklists like those we find in the aircraft pilot operating handbook (POH) are a good start, but only a start. They are much better when tailored to the individual pilot and the individual airplane because no two pilots are alike.  In addition, checklists are a work in process. We and our airplanes change over time and it usually affects our checklist.

From GUMPS to Flow Pattern
When I started flying in 1959, I just used the mnemonic GUMPS (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Propeller, Seatbelts and Switches). It worked well in the tail-dragger trainers, Piper Tri-Pacer and Cessna 172s of the day. It wasn’t until I got a Musketeer in 1966 that I started using printed checklists. Even then my Musketeer checklist was pretty simple. It had only five items for Pre-Takeoff: Radios, Engine Instruments, Magnetos Check, Flight Instruments, Controls Free. Fast forward to 2000 when I moved up to the Bonanza, and my checklist grew to 13 pages. [view sample]

You’re probably thinking 13 pages this is serious overkill even for a complex airplane like the Bonanza, but it’s not really. It’s based on a checklist developed specifically for the Bonanza by Flight Safety International which I modified for my particular airplane and flying needs. My rationale for sticking with the detailed format was it served as a regular refresher of what was important. This I believed would be beneficial considering I don’t fly a lot and my aging memory is less than stellar. This expansive text-based checklist has in fact served me well for many years, but I'm looking or something better.

At Tullahoma in May 2011, I had the good fortune to talk with a fellow A36 owner from New England, Ed Trautman. He shared his design for a flow pattern based checklist. I’ve always been interested in flow type checklists, but could never find a design I liked until I saw Ed’s. I took his design and totally redid my checklist. [view sample] It was harder than I expected to create the flow pattern. The challenge was not the graphics design, it was determining the stages and getting the flow for each right. It took several tries including testing in the aircraft to get it right. In the end, the key was making note of the way I actually did my checks and going from there including improving the flow.

The flow pattern checklist is much simple than my text list. Most importantly it is a natural flow and should be easy to do consistently. In printed format, it is a single page that folds in the middle and fits in a clear plastic, approach plate size sleeve. Color coding of the stages helps in keeping your place on the page.

One of my larger pilot goals is to eliminate paper in the cockpit and last year I stopped carrying paper charts. With that in mind, I wanted this checklist to run on my iPad. I view it using GoodReader. It looks great on the iPad especially at night. During the day, I prefer the printed checklist.

The Bigger Picture
I'm always interested in wisdom offered by other pilots. A gem I picked up from Tom Rosen of Sacramento, CA is “a checklist is only as good as the person using it. It’s not uncommon for highly competent, experienced pilots to answer a checklist with the correct answer while the task was not done. Developing good habits and practicing them religiously before going through a checklist will provide a greater level of protection. A checklist is not a to-do list. It’s a check to confirm you have done something.” Don’t blame it all on the checklist.

A view I often see is that we should concentrate on the “killer” items. "You don’t need a check list to start the engine, turn on the avionics, or during takeoff". I agree and have worked hard to eliminate as much extraneous detail as possible. For example, an important activity at startup involves setting total fuel on board in the Garmin 530/430. However, this is something you can’t miss as the Garmin startup always stops at this function. There is no need to put it on the checklist. In any case, you know how much fuel you have because looked in the tanks during the walkaround and verified the levels shown on the fuel gauges. Things like selecting the proper fuel tank and trim setting can ruin your day if they are not right. I’ve had my share of inconvenience-type checklist failures and wish they had not happened, but the killer items are what we must get right. Effective check lists are not long ones.

Above all, make sure your checklist works for you. How will you know it works? Keep track of your pilot errors and note which ones ore checklist related. If they are greater than you believe they should be, something needs to change. It might not be the design of your checklist, but it may be part of the problem. Never consider your checklist finished. Don’t have it laminated.